After the obligatory orchestral music roaring over the opening credits Rififi opens to a smoky and ash-littered poker table. Its an inviting quietness and welcoming for viewers familiar with crime cinema and film noir. Throughout the film it is sound, or lack thereof, that reigns supreme. Dialogue is secondary, although Jean Servais delivers each line with a weary smokiness that feels perfect for the aging gangster Tony “le Stéphanois.”
Loosely adapted from Auguste Le Breton’s novel, blacklisted director Jules Dassin, who helmed other notable noirs such as Night and the City and Brute Force, used the freedoms of French cinema to create not only a brilliant crime caper, but one of the defining pictures of the heist genre. Tony is finally out of jail and gambling away money he doesn’t have when he is approached by his old protégé concerning a quick, daylight jewel robbery at a Parisian bank. Italian gangster Mario, an exuberant Robert Manuel, proposes the heist. Tony declines. Jo lends him some cash. His old girlfriend, Mado, is in town and she’s been dating crime boss Pierre Grutter, played suitably, smoothly, and coldly by Marcel Lupovici, while he’s been in prison.
Tony changes his mind after tracking down Mado. The scene plays out methodically, slowly, quietly. Tony forces Mado to take off her jewelry slowly. He forces her to undress. “All of it,” he says. Servais’ quiet glower is red-hot and full of malice. He whips her with his belt off-screen. As brutal as Rififi is, much of the violence takes place in this way. Perhaps due to budget constraints, it is regardless very effective. After this encounter Tony seems filled with an existential emptiness. If he doesn’t feel it, I do. Tony calls Jo. “A man has to make a living,” he says. Servais delivers it low and quiet, consenting begrudgingly again to “the life.”
Dassin refused to shoot the film in sunlight. Overcast skies were required, and it shows. The streets of Montmartre are constantly wet. The streets alone shine. Men scheme in the shadows and walk with hats turned down, collars turned up. Vice is everywhere. Several scenes smolder with eroticism and sensuality. Magali Noel, in perhaps my favorite moment of the film, sings seductively of rififi (“trouble”) in the low-lit L’Age D’or club. She is impossible to look away from. She sings of gangsters, streetwise guys, and rough men. The rough men of Rififi. A silhouetted man dances and poses behind her. He fires his gun and lights a cigarette with the smoking barrel.
The film is ahead of its time in his humanization of criminals and gangsters. Servais’ Tony leads the group of four. But the rest still matter. Rounding out the group is César, Mr. Dassin himself, a smooth womanizing safecracker. Dassin plays the role with such disarming suave and charm. Jo is a family man and a caring father. Mario’s happy-go-lucky and loyal to a fault.
Dassin has created one of the most suspenseful films of all-time. Even the preparation drips with tension. The heist itself is a nearly 30-minute sequence, completely silent aside from the shuffling of feet and an occasional grunt. Tony sweats with anxiety as he checks his notes, affirming the routes of the Postman and Police patrol. It is a sequence of mastery from Dassin.
After the heist the film refuses to let up. The human element sinks in more than ever. As with all great film noir everything begins going to hell. Rififi may deal with shadows, crime, sensuality, and honor among thieves but where it truly becomes a masterpiece is in the character of Tony: above all he is a man. The aging, aimless gangster bound to his life and his code, hurtling fatally and dealing with the wages of Sin.